What are Angels?

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“Poets are born knowing the language of angels.” 

 Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light

November has turned over time to December, a month of deepening frost, and merry celebrations.  It’s the festive season when all the twinkling lights brighten up the city and give even a rainy Vancouver sky a mystical glow.  This is the time of year for joy, good-will, Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and the appearance of an angel or two. Angels come in many forms and are found in shop windows, holiday cards, and frosted Christmas cookies.

Angels have been part of human history since ancient times, dating back to the long, long ago Mycenaean era (16th to 12th centuries BCE) Throughout the centuries and mythologies, there is a common theme of “messenger.”  Angels are intermediaries who have knowledge to share, teach, or warn. They bear tidings of destiny.

What are angels? I have the answer, or rather I was sent the answer by way of the marvellously gifted experts at The National Gallery, London.  I am learning that creative endeavour, whatever form it takes, whether it be art, poetry, music, dance, literature, oration, allows us to explore the unknown and make peace with the unknowable.

“If instead of a gem, or even a
flower, we should cast the gift of a loving thought into the heart of a
friend, that would be giving as the angels give.” George MacDonald

Nike

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Nike stands vigil on the Cordova Street median at Thurlow in downtown Vancouver. Daughter of the Titan Pallas and the goddess Styx, she comes from a distant past. Sister to Kratos (Strength), Bia (Force), and Zelus (Zeal), she represents Victory.  Endowed with speed and agility, she took her place as the divine charioteer, rewarding the victors of battle with glory and fame. Her name has endured over the centuries, along with her companions Zeus and Athena.

Nike

Nike came to Vancouver, a gift from the Greek city of Olympia in honor of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games hosted by our fair city.  Designed by Pavlos Angelos Kougioumtzis, who lives and works in Athens and Delphi, there is a remarkable strength embodied in Nike’s abstract beauty and elegant lines.  Bronze, four-metre-tall and placed atop a 2.5-metre base, Nike presides over a busy city intersection, a profound reminder that ancient ways are embedded in our modern societies.

We are defined by our mythologies. In turn, our mythologies keep us focused on universal themes that have been embraced and handed down through the generations of human history.

Nike

Defining The Hero

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“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

Joseph Campbell

Lindos,  Rhodes

Hercules, Perseus, Theseus – these were the myths for which I searched the libraries as a 10-year-old.  Magnificent heroes, blessed with superhuman strength and unfaltering courage, forged their destinies through journeys fraught with danger and treachery.  As time passed, I chose new stories to take their place.  Ones that were more in line with what I considered credible and more suitable for my reality.  While I still enjoyed the hero myths, I lost that singular childhood enthusiasm.  When I grew older, I became less sure of their relevance in my life. Indeed, the word “mythology” has the implication that what has been written is so fantastic that it simply cannot be true. That being the case, what significance can be given to these narratives?  The real question is, do we still need heroes?

The heroic story is not only limited to Greek mythology; rather there are common elements through all mythologies that speak to the need for a hero, a model, someone who can be emulated, someone who makes us proud to be human.  Their journeys are more about overcoming an internal conflict than achieving an external victory.  The quest pattern begins with a journey over land or sea into the unknown.  The hero confronts danger to bring back a person, object or knowledge. Gilgamesh  overcame despair and grief in his pursuit of the meaning of life. Jason led the Argonauts on an expedition in search of the Golden Fleece to secure his kingship. Hercules performed twelve labours and achieved immortality.

Our modern world still holds these same qualities is high regard.  We pursue a “Golden Fleece”, the symbol of authority, to establish our position within society.   We identify with Gilgamesh  in our search for the meaning of life.  We live in a finite existence, yet we recognize the possibility of the infinite, of immortality.

We need hero myths to remind us we are on a personal quest that celebrates the life that has been granted.  Joseph Campbell once said, “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”  

We travel the path of heroes.

 

 

 

Tablet One – Gilgamesh

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Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.”

Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh

 Gilgamesh

Myths are not simple stories. Nor are they easy.  Not surprising, for they are the signature of civilization, entrenched in our cultural experience, past and present.  Their influence resonates in our languages, religions, and customs to this very day, even within our supposedly sophisticated society.   A slender thread of mythology weaves itself into our books, music, videos and movies.  Humanity seeks to know, to understand, to believe in something that gives meaning.  In that sense, our generation is no different from the ancient Sumerians who lived in the southern part of the alluvial basin formed by the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Gilgamesh holds the honour of being the oldest literature and the first hero narrative. Although said to be an Assyrian tale which is recorded as five independent poems in approximately 2100 BCE, many scholars believe that the account was passed via Sumerian oral traditions.

Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, was wise, and discerned many mysteries and secret things.    He was created by the gods, who gave him a perfect body which was two-thirds god and one-third man. Shamash, the splendid sun gave him beauty; Adad the storm god, bestowed courage.  Even with these magnificent gifts, Gilgamesh oppressed his people until they cried out to their gods for deliverance.  The gods answered their prayers by creating an equal to Gilgamesh.  The stage is set for the hero’s quest.

The Gilgamesh myth is remarkable for its intellectual purpose.  Gilgamesh must overcome despair and grief in his pursuit of the meaning of life.  Only then can he achieve enduring fame.

“As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”
Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh

Masters of the Universe

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“Nights through dreams tell the myths forgotten by the day.” 

 C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

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Mythology is a story of the sacred that has come down through the ages of humankind.  The breadth and depth of this discussion is immeasurable for it encompasses all cultures throughout time.  Even definitions and categorizations are complex and the subject of ongoing debate. But there is one certainty:  myths seek to answer those questions that give substance and meaning to our existence.  How did life begin? What happens in death? Why is there good and evil?  Why am I here?  What is my purpose?  We want to be masters of our universe, which can only be realized when we understand our place within that universe.

Joseph Campbell, a mythologist who wrote and lectured on comparative mythology and comparative religion, suggested that “Mythology is composed by poets out of their insights and realizations. Mythologies are not invented; they are found. You can no more tell us what your dream is going to be tonight than we can invent a myth. Myths come from the mystical region of essential experience.”   This is indeed a topic for deep discussion.  Even so, there is a genuine simplicity imbedded in these spell-binding mythological tales, each of which offers a wealth of imagery to amuse and stir our senses.  They reveal the power of love, courage, loyalty; and address the darker emotions of jealousy, cruelty and violence. They help us understand loss and the finality of death in our reality.

Olympia

As a ten-year-old, these thoughts were far from my mind when I searched the library shelves for books that would take me back to ancient Greece and the heroics of Hercules, the beauty of Aphrodite and wisdom of Athena.  I felt a connection with their stories that continue to this very day.  Perhaps being the master of our universe is merely being a voice within a universal conversation.

Civilizations pass; myths endure.

 

We Need Myths

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“Myths have a very long memory.”
Bryan Sykes, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland

Olympia, Greece

Mythology! The very word has to power to evoke strong emotional responses because myths speak to the heart of human experience.  We long for certainty in a fragile and finite existence in order to build lives within reasonably secure surroundings. Instead, we are born into a complex world that hurls more questions at us than it does answers. Myths carry tradition within its narratives.  And because we are a curious species, we use them in an attempt to explain natural or social phenomenon.  Perhaps their greatest task is to provide us with the assurance of our beginnings and endings.

When we think of mythology, we think back to earliest times where supernatural beings and events seemed to have a rightful place in ancient civilizations.  Yet, there is clear evidence that mythology is well entrenched within our DNA. Karen Armstrong in A Short History of Myth wrote, “We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion, which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world.”  Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, comes from a different perspective: “Myths, whether in written or visual form, serve a vital role of asking unanswerable questions and providing unquestionable answers. Most of us, most of the time, have a low tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. We want to reduce the cognitive dissonance of not knowing by filling the gaps with answers. Traditionally, religious myths have served that role, but today — the age of science — science fiction is our mythology.”

We are a global community with the means to communicate and share knowledge.  What better way to celebrate our humanity than by recounting the myths, legends, folklore and tales that have come down through the generations.  Myths do indeed, have a very long memory.